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Posts Tagged ‘1960s’

In October, I submitted a festival report on the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival (mostly about the Wavelengths section) to the online journal Offscreen, and the editor, Donato Totaro, was kind enough to accept it. The new issue just went up and you can read my article there.

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As a contract director for Nikkatsu, Seijun Suzuki pumped out about forty B-movies between 1956 and 1967, when the studio fired him for making “incomprehensible” films. In an interview in the ’90s, he said, “In normal movies, they take care to show time and space. […] But in my films, spaces and places change,” adding, “I guess that’s the strength of entertainment movies. You can do anything you want to as long as those elements make the movie interesting.” Shot in twenty-five days, and edited and mixed in just three (a normal production schedule for a Nikkatsu B-movie of the period), Gate of Flesh (1964) is less willfully avant-garde than Branded to Kill (1967) — the film that got Suzuki sacked — which suggests that the difficulty one sometimes has in following the plot is more likely the result of the haste with which the movie was made rather than a deliberate choice.

Set in a bombed out quarter of Tokyo during the American Occupation, the noirish storyline revolves around a brutish ex-soldier turned penicillin thief, Shintaro (Joe Shishido), who holes up with a band of prostitutes while recovering from a gunshot to the leg. The women — whose brightly coloured clothes contrast nicely with their scorched surroundings — form a kind of mini-cartel, each having vowed not to give it away for free. (To make it easier to tell them apart, the movie associates each woman with a different colour.) When they discover that Machiko (Misako Tominaga), who always wears a black kimono, refused payment from a trick she’s fallen in love with, the other women force her to strip, tie her hands, and beat her with a stick. According to Suzuki, the studio wanted an erotic film, and he lingers on Machiko’s punishment with kinky relish.

Notwithstanding his taste for jump cuts, here Suzuki doesn’t violate the rules of continuity editing as flagrantly as he would in later films. The only really unusual thing about his coverage in this movie is his apparent aversion to shot-reverse shot cutting. Instead of alternating between Machiko’s humiliation and the reactions of the cartel’s newest member, Maya (Yumiko Nogawa) — who’s both figuratively and literally green — Suzuki superimposes the latter over the former, though I don’t know if he did this to make the sequence more interesting or if he just did it to save money. In an interview on the DVD, the film’s production designer, Takeo Kimura, frankly admits that he decided on a theatrical style for the sets in order to cut costs, and the lighting is accordingly non-naturalistic. In one nighttime scene, an unmotivated spotlight follows Sen (Satoko Kasai), who always wears red, as she moves around the hovel where she plies her trade.

What makes the film a little confusing is its tendency to cut away in the middle of an action to an unrelated event in another location. Early on, the movie jumps from Sen asking Maya if she’s a virgin to a gratuitous scene in which a black preacher (Chico Roland, in an indescribably bad performance) comes upon a woman’s body in a field somewhere. I didn’t catch whether the woman was dead or merely unconscious, and ultimately it doesn’t matter as she’s never mentioned afterwards. And later, when the cartel members threaten to do unspecified harm to Machiko with a razor, it’s unclear if they go through with it. At the point where the sequence breaks off, they don’t seem to be moved by her pleas for mercy, but the next time we see Machiko, she appears to be alright. However, while Gate of Flesh isn’t an entirely successful movie, thanks to its lurid plot, eye-catching colour scheme, and copious sex and violence, at least it’s never a boring one.

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Like Yojimbo (1961) two years earlier, Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low (1963) is a stylish and absorbing genre exercise that suffers slightly from its single-mindedness. As the movie opens, Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune, who here resembles Saddam Hussein in a cardigan) is a wealthy executive who’s mortgaged everything to gain control over a women’s shoe company. But on the day that he’s to make his big move, he receives a phone call informing him that his son’s been abducted — only the kidnapper made a mistake and nabbed his chauffeur’s son instead. The film’s early scenes, which mostly take place in and around Gondo’s living room, are especially gripping in their exposition of his moral dilemma, but when the focus shifts to the police halfway through, the movie loses its most compelling character. None of the cops investigating the case have distinct personalities, nor is the kidnapper given any backstory or even much of a motive beyond a general resentment of Gondo’s wealth. Even at 145 minutes, this doesn’t have much fat but it doesn’t leave much of an aftertaste either.

No less singleminded, Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain (1959) focusses squarely on the plight of a single Japanese soldier in order to make a larger point about war in general. Set during the final days of World War II, the story is about a private with TB (Eiji Funakoshi) who’s too ill for regular duty but not sick enough to be admitted to the hospital, which is overflowing with dying men. Ragged and hungry, the private wanders across a bleak, corpse-strewn landscape in search of something to eat, and by not giving him any backstory or distinguishing character traits, the film emphasizes the universality of his struggle to survive. At the same time, by focussing so narrowly on this one private on the Philippine front at the end of the war, the movie sidesteps the issues of Japanese imperialism and war crimes altogether. (More defensible is the film’s decision not to depict any American war crimes, which might have made the Japanese soldiers seem noble and heroic for resisting them.) In other words, the movie makes the case that the war was hell because “our” boys suffered so much, which is true enough but also something of an evasion.

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There’s a famous sequence in François Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste (1960) where the hero’s kid brother, Fido (Richard Kanayan), has been kidnapped by a pair of gangsters. As they drive away from Paris, one of them tells Fido that the scarf he’s wearing is made from a futuristic metal that feels as soft as silk. When Fido expresses disbelief, the gangster replies, “If I’m lying, may my mother keel over this instant.” The film then cuts to an old woman suddenly dropping dead in another location. However, since the two scenes were filmed at different times of day (the gangster at night, the old woman during the day), we don’t read the second shot as something literally happening in the story, but as a non-diegetic insert commenting on the action. There can be no doubt that the gangster’s lying.

Given such flights of fancy, one might conclude that Truffaut isn’t very interested in the film’s generic story line—which is, after all, based on a pulp American novel by David Goodis. However, in contrast with Jean-Luc Godard’s even more irreverent handling of similarly pulpy material in Made in USA (1966), where incidentally one of the characters is named David Goodis, Truffaut presents the narrative in a clear manner through a narration that generates surprises and suspense, despite such digressions which periodically suspend narrative development. It’s through this mix of narrative unity and disruption, comic asides and sudden violence, that Truffaut is able to take a familiar noir story about a character who can’t escape his past and make it seem fresh and interesting.

The story (based on Goodis’ 1956 novel Down There, which I haven’t read) has two major lines of action: A crime plot and a romance, as well as a lengthy flashback sequence that takes place several years before the main action begins. When the film opens, Edouard Saroyan (Charles Aznavour) is playing the piano in a dive bar under an assumed name while raising Fido with the assistance of his neighbor, Clarisse (Michèle Mercier). One evening, his older brother, Chico (Albert Remy), unexpectedly turns up at the bar to ask Edouard to help him get away from some gangsters who are chasing him. At first Edouard doesn’t want to get involved, but when the gangsters, Ernest (Daniel Boulanger) and Momo (Claude Mansard), also show up at the bar, he suddenly springs into action.

After closing time, Edouard leaves the bar with Léna (Marie Dubois), a pretty waitress whom he’s attracted to, but lacks the courage to ask her out. The following day, the gangsters grab both of them at gunpoint, but thanks to some quick thinking on Léna’s part, they’re able to slip away. Afterwards, they go back to her apartment, and when Edouard walks through the door, he’s confronted by a giant poster with his real name on it from his former life as a classical pianist. In a flashback, we see how Edouard’s rise to fame was offset by the decline of his marriage, culminating in his wife’s suicide. The movie could almost end here: Edouard has helped Chico to escape and gotten the girl, although it’s Léna who ultimately makes the first move—and what’s more, it’s she who saves Edouard, not the other way around.

After sleeping together, Edouard and Léna decide to quit their jobs at the bar so that he can resume his career as a concert pianist. However, he gets into a fight with the owner, Plyne (Serge Davri), that ends with Edouard stabbing him in the back. Meanwhile, the gangsters kidnap Fido and head to the Saroyan family home in the mountains where Chico is hiding out. Edouard and Léna go after them, but as the gangsters’ car breaks down on the freeway, Edouard arrives there a full day earlier. Because of the delay, Edouard concludes they aren’t coming and decides to return to Paris with Léna, having been cleared of Plyne’s murder in the meantime. However, it’s precisely when he goes into the house to say goodbye to his brothers that the gangsters arrive with Fido, and in the ensuing shootout, Léna is killed by one of the gangsters.

As this description indicates, Edouard is largely passive. Instead, it’s the other characters who move the story forward, particularly the gangsters and Léna. When the film opens, the gangsters are pursuing Chico with the aim of recovering the loot from a robbery they pulled together. Initially, their goal is thwarted by Edouard when he helps his brother to slip away. The next day, they grab Edouard and Léna with the intention of exchanging them for the money, but are foiled again by Léna. Finally, they decide to kidnap Fido, yet he too manages to escape. The last time we see Chico, he’s driving down a snow-covered road with the gangsters still pursuing him. This shot echoes the film’s opening sequence, in which we see Chico running away from a car on a darkened street in Paris, suggesting that the crime plot has come full circle. (We never find out if the gangsters catch up with Chico or not.)

As I noted earlier, it’s Léna who takes the first step in her relationship with Edouard by inviting him back to her apartment. Furthermore, she’s the one who decides that they should quit their jobs, and after Edouard kills Plyne in self-defense, it’s Léna who organizes his flight from the police. Similarly, in the flashback, Edouard becomes rich and famous not because of any action he takes, but because his wife, Thérésa (Nicole Berger), makes an arrangement with the impresario, Lars Schmeer (Claude Heymann). However, as in many films of the Nouvelle Vague, causal relationships are occasionally somewhat loose¹. Léna’s fatal intervention in the climatic shootout, which brings the romance plot to an abrupt close, is almost as arbitrary as the endings of Godard’s Vivre sa vie: Film en douze tableaux (1962) and Le Mépris (1963), in which the heroines are disposed of in a similarly casual manner.

Although the flashback sequence has an obvious significance to the main narrative in that it explains how Edouard came to be the piano player at Plyne’s, it’s curious that the film should spend so much time on it given that this sequence effectively suspends the action for seventeen minutes (almost a quarter of the film’s total length). A more compelling justification for this sequence is that the implied parallels between Thérésa and Léna give the ending an additional poignancy. Both women are waitresses who die suddenly when Edouard momentarily leaves them alone (Thérésa when he walks out on her, Léna when he goes into the house to say goodbye to his brothers), the implication being that he’s indirectly responsible for their deaths because he wasn’t there to protect them. In the flashback, it’s Thérésa’s love for Edouard that makes his musical career possible, and when she kills herself, he gives it all up. Similarly, Léna encourages him to restart his career, but after her death, he returns to the bar. The film ends with Edouard playing the same tune that we heard over the opening credits.

As in most narrative films, time and space are largely subordinated to causality². Notwithstanding the flashback and the final scene, the plot takes place over a period of four nights and four days, but typically we only see events of causal significance. For instance, after Edouard and Léna slip away from the gangsters, we don’t see them taking the bus back to Paris. Instead, the film cuts directly to them getting off somewhere near Léna’s apartment. Likewise, within scenes, the framing and editing usually focus our attention on the section of space where the most important action is happening. When the gangsters arrive at the house with Fido, we don’t see Edouard saying goodbye to his brothers. In general, the framing and editing don’t call attention to themselves, but support the narration “invisibly.”

With this in mind, we can identify two kinds of digressions in the film. First, there are temporal digressions, in which the plot presents a stretch of dead time where nothing important is happening. In this regard (as well as its use of real locations and fluid camerawork), the film betrays the influence of Italian neorealism. However, the digressions in this film are quite different from the famous sequence in Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. (1952), where we see the maid going about her daily chores. Instead of bolstering the film’s claims to verisimilitude, here the film’s asides tend to be more fanciful, as when Momo tells Edouard and Léna about the time he tried on his sister’s silk underwear (“What a feeling!”). If anything, scenes like this (and its twin later on, when Momo “kills” his mother by lying about a silk scarf) detract from the film’s realism by making the gangsters seem ridiculous rather than intimidating. Consequently, it comes as more of a shock when Ernest shoots Léna—a scene that could’ve been inspired by Anna Magnani’s death in Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945).

Secondly, there are spatial digressions in which the camera breaks away from the story to explore on its own. One of the most mysterious moments in the film occurs during the flashback when Edouard goes to audition for Schmeer. As he walks down a long corridor looking for Schmeer’s office, we hear a violin solo on the soundtrack. When Edouard finds the right door, he hesitates to ring the buzzer until the music stops and a young woman emerges from the other side carrying a violin case. Instead of following Edouard when he steps into the office, the camera remains in the corridor with the young woman. After she takes a few steps, a piano solo begins on the soundtrack. She pauses for a moment and then continues walking. The music continues over a second shot of the young woman walking through an empty courtyard, then a poster for an upcoming recital to be performed by Edouard, and finally a shot of him playing on stage. This ellipsis presages Thérésa’s death, in which the camera follows Edouard into the corridor rather than presenting her suicide directly.

Incidentally, the scene with the violinist comes during a flashback which not only closely adheres to Edouard’s range of knowledge, but initially seems to be his subjective memory. When he first walks into Léna’s apartment and sees the poster on the wall, she remarks, “Now Charlie [Edouard’s assumed name] plays the piano at Plyne’s, but there was a time when he didn’t. Isn’t that right, Edouard?” As the camera pans away from Edouard and Léna, her line, “Isn’t that right, Edouard?” is repeated on the soundtrack, this time with an echo as if resonating in his memory. This is followed by a quick succession of superimpositions and dissolves leading into the flashback, over which we hear Léna’s words, “There was a time,” repeated twice. However, immediately following Thérésa’s suicide, Léna takes over as the narrator, describing in voice-over how Edouard came to be the piano player at Plyne’s, as if telling him his own life’s story (“You disappeared and started over”).

As evidenced by such shifts in viewpoint, the movie’s narration isn’t confined to any one character’s range of knowledge. However, by withholding certain pieces of information from the viewer, the film generates mystery and surprise³. When Edouard leaves the bar with Léna, we hear his thoughts in voice-over as he tries to work up the courage to ask her out. Since the film frames Edouard in close-up, we’re as surprised as he is when the camera pulls back to reveal him standing alone on an empty street, Léna having slipped away unnoticed while he was thinking. Similarly, as we don’t ever see Thérésa alone with Schmeer, it’s not clear initially why Edouard’s marriage suddenly deteriorates (although we gather it has something to do with his sudden fame and success). When she admits to having slept with Schmeer in order to help Edouard’s career, that we only learn about her actions after the fact puts greater emphasis both on the act of her confessing and Edouard’s reaction to what she says.

Significantly, the entire time that Thérésa is telling her story, the film never cuts away to Edouard; only when she finishes do we see his reaction. Instead of identifying with Edouard as he listens to her story, we empathize with Thérésa as she tells it. However, as I noted earlier, when Edouard walks out on her, the film follows him into the corridor rather than staying with Thérésa. It’s only when he runs back into the room a moment later that a pan reveals Thérésa’s body lying on the street, the camera identifying roughly with Edouard’s point of view as he looks out the window. Although this might be construed as an homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), unlike his hero, Truffaut rarely employs point of view shots⁴. Accordingly, even when the narration is restricted to what Edouard knows (particularly in the first half of the movie, up to and including the flashback), we often see and hear a great deal more.

In an early scene at the bar, Chico flirts with Plyne’s wife (Catherine Lutz) while Edouard performs on stage. As Chico grabs her and starts dancing, the film cuts from a shot where Edouard is prominently framed in the foreground to one where he’s in the background. The dialogue between Chico and Plyne’s wife directs our attention away from Edouard, and as they continue dancing, the camera tilts down so that he gets framed out of the shot altogether. It seems unlikely that Edouard would be able to hear their conversation over the music, particularly as they move farther away from the band. In the next part of the sequence, we listen in on different conversations between customers in the bar which Edouard is even less likely to hear. At one point, a man points out something to his friend, and the film cuts to a point of view shot of Clarisse on the dance floor, the camera tilting up from her hips to her face. (Offscreen, the friend remarks, “Interesting. Or just bizarre.”) When the man dancing with Clarisse slaps her, Chico heroically comes to the rescue. The film then cuts to the gangsters approaching the bar, even though neither Edouard nor Chico has seen them yet.

By not rigidly confining itself to what Edouard sees and hears, the narration is able to clearly establish Plyne’s relationship with his wife (which becomes relevant later on when she helps Edouard to evade the police), and that Chico, unlike Edouard, is something of a ladies’ man. He’s about to leave the bar with Clarisse when Ernest and Momo walk through the door. (We know who they are because, earlier in the same scene, Chico had mentioned that they both smoke a pipe. Apart from making them immediately recognizable, this trait also makes them seem comical from the very beginning.) Furthermore, by including two shots of the gangsters as they approach the bar, the film de-emphasizes their arrival in order to highlight the contrast between Chico’s panicky reaction and Edouard’s levelheaded response.

In the second half of the film, the narration further increases our field of knowledge by cutting between Edouard and Léna in one location, and the gangsters with Fido in another. When the gangsters don’t immediately turn up at the Saroyan family home, Edouard concludes that they aren’t coming and decides to return to Paris with Léna. However, unlike Edouard, we know that the gangsters were delayed by car troubles. (Earlier while driving on the freeway, Edouard and Léna unwittingly pass right by them, something known only to Fido.) When Edouard goes into the house, the film creates suspense by cutting to the gangsters approaching the house in their car. One shot begins with Léna in the foreground, looking offscreen right, and then pans left to reveal the gangsters’ car approaching just behind her.

Later, the film draws out the suspense by manipulating time and space so as to slow down the action. When Edouard’s brothers start shooting it out with the gangsters, the film cuts to Léna (facing off-screen left), who turns around and calls to Edouard (“Charlie!”). She then starts running, the camera panning right with her movement. This is followed by a second, much longer shot of her running, and if you look closely, you can see that she’s actually running in a circle while the camera pans 360 degrees. The next shot shows Ernest raising his pistol and aiming it at some one offscreen right, most likely Edouard or one of his brothers. Léna seems to be coming to the rescue. However, after two more shots of Léna running, we see Ernest fire his gun at some one offscreen left, and the camera quickly pans and tilts to reveal Léna’s body falling to the ground. The suddenness of Léna’s death after such a lengthy buildup (underlined by the quick camera movement from Ernest to Léna), and its matter-of-factness, contrast sharply with the death of Momo’s mother, which was shot in slow motion in a comically exaggerated style.

Although far from an ordinary thriller, the film still has a narrative which presents a logical sequence of events. (When the characters behave irrationally, as Léna does in the climatic sequence, the movie justifies this in part by appealing to conventions of cinematic realism.) Furthermore, by first withholding information from the viewer and then expanding our range of knowledge, the movie generates surprises and suspense. So while the film’s various digressions periodically suspend narrative development, they don’t seriously undermine our emotional involvement in the story. If anything, by softening the story’s noirish elements and pushing the tone of the film towards comedy, such fanciful asides make the ending all the more shocking. In this way, the film demonstrates how a familiar story can be made to seem fresh by a novel approach.

Notes:
1. David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, fourth edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993), pg. 481-482.
2. Ibid, pg. 83.
3. Ibid, pg. 77.
4. “Truffaut claims that we identify with a character not when we look with the character but when the character looks at us. ‘A subjective camera is the negation of subjective cinema. When it replaces a character, one can’t identify with him. The cinema becomes subjective when the actor’s gaze meets that of the audience’ [in Peter Graham, The New Wave (New York: Viking, 1968), pg. 93].” Ibid, pg. 243.

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